The Principal Navigations by Richard Hakluyt, book of a lifetime: One of the most influential prose works of the Elizabethan age


Click to follow

It was the most expensive book I'd ever bought and also the heaviest. At £850 – and weighing in at just over eight kilograms – Richard Hakluyt's The Principal Navigations consisted of 12 handsome volumes embossed with gilded lettering.

One of the most influential prose works of the Elizabethan age, it is a compilation of eyewitness accounts of expeditions into unknown seas. The gallery of characters that stride through its pages outmatch any novel: scurvy-ridden seadogs, barbaric chieftains and head-hunting cannibals.

Hakluyt's work inspired many of the great voyages of the Golden Age (as well as chronicling them) and drove the colonisation of North America. Without it, English adventurers might never have braved the North Atlantic tempests. It was first published in 1589 under a prolix title of more than 100 words. My edition, bought from a second-hand bookshop in London's Charing Cross Road, was the magnificent 1903 reprint, published in Scotland by James MacLehose.

It had never been read: I had to cut the pages before turning them. Hakluyt's passion was to collect and publish the journals of storm-tossed adventurers. His labour reaped rich dividends, as he explains in his preface. "I brought to light many very rare and worthy monuments which long have lain in mistie darkness and were very like to have been buried in perpetuall oblivion."

A consummate editor, he selected accounts that served his greater purpose, encouraging his Protestant countrymen to colonise far-flung lands. Some of the voyages he chronicled had far-reaching consequences. When Richard Chancellor's 1553 Arctic expedition ended in shipwreck, his men trudged through snow to Moscow and were entertained at the court of Ivan the Terrible. The result was the formation of the Muscovy Company.

The most influential of Hakluyt's volumes are those concerning America. He published accounts of the early expeditions to Virginia, when English seadogs clashed with native Americans in the 1580s. Crucially, he included Thomas Harriot's A Briefe and True Report, a clarion call for mass colonisation that led to the first permanent settlement in the New World. It was these accounts from Virginia that inspired my bestselling books Nathaniel's Nutmeg and Big Chief Elizabeth.

Many books can claim to have changed lives, but few can claim to have changed the world. In sending colonists to the uttermost ends of the earth, Hakluyt's Principal Navigations did just that – for better or worse.

Giles Milton's debut thriller, 'The Perfect Corpse', is published by Prospero Books